Gena Mejia chose to buy a house in Monroe because it was a beautiful town and it had so many churches. Little did she know the lack of Christian charity that her next-door neighbors would show to a Mexican couple.
She and her husband, Francesco, had been legal U.S. residents for 30 years when they moved from the Eastside to Monroe in 2004. But trouble with the husband of the white couple next door started almost immediately.
In the past three years, Mejia says, the man has come at her husband with a crowbar, spit in his face, and spewed racial epithets. She got a restraining order but says Monroe police never enforced it. Then in August 2005, the day after she filed for a new protection order, she says armed immigration agents showed up on her doorstep demanding to know where her son was.
Mejia cooperated, bringing her son, Ceasar Keymolen, then 30 years-old and the working father of two young children, to Monroe police headquarters. Hours later, she says, agents carried him out like an animal for transfer to Tacoma’s Northwest Detention Center. It took six months to get him out, she says – and he is a legal resident who’s spent his whole life in the United States.
Immigration activists say Ceasar Keymolen isn’t alone – one reason protesters held a 24-hour vigil outside the Tacoma Detention Center on July 13 and 14. In a press conference held prior to the vigil, members of the Church Council of Greater Seattle, Hate Free Zone and Washington Community Action Network compared the center to a corporate run gulag – a private lock-up where people have no recourse to get out, other than a deportation hearing in which they are not entitled to any free legal help.
In the wake of the U.S. Senate failing to pass immigration reform this month, the activists called for a halt to the type of workplace and home raids that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has conducted recently in Bellingham, Portland and across the nation. Instead of targeting criminals, says Tim Smith, chair of Tacoma’s Bill of Rights Defense Committee, the raids are rounding up working families with children like Keymolen’s.
“These workplace sweeps that go on have [a history] back in the 1920s, when we rounded up communists and homosexuals,” Smith says. “Now we’re rounding up people whose last name isn’t Smith or Jones.”
The recent raids in Oregon and Washington have resulted in hundreds of immigrants being detained in Tacoma and “caused widespread fear among immigrant communities throughout the state,” says Shankar Narayan, policy director of Hate Free Zone.
After her son’s experience, Mejia describes the 1,000-bed detention center as “a place to break people’s spirit.” Run by a private company called GEO Inc. – the new name for a former division of a private prison operator, the Wackenhut Corporation – Mejia says her son was given bad food, dirty laundry and put in a cell with a violent criminal.
ICE’s reason for picking him up, she says, was an earlier domestic violence charge that Keymolen had pleaded guilty to after an argument with his girlfriend and mother of his children. The resulting sentence – 365 days probation – put him in a felony category for which ICE can seek deportation. So Mejia hired a lawyer and went back to court with the girlfriend’s mother and aunt, who spoke on his behalf.
The judge dropped the sentence by one day, removing the legal grounds for Keymolen’s deportation. In February 2006, he was finally released.
“While his case was on appeal,” ICE spokesperson Lori Haley writes in an e-mail, “he received a sentence modification (reduction) that qualified him for relief from removal.”
“ICE does not make the ultimate decision about whether an alien is, or isn’t, deportable,” she adds. “That responsibility rests with our nation’s immigration judges.”
Haley says she cannot provide details on how Ceasar Keymolen came to ICE’s attention in the first place, but notes that the agency relies on tips “from a multitude of sources – including working closely with local law enforcement.” An inquiry with a spokesperson at the Monroe Police Department went unanswered.
Mejia says she is still in shock at the injustice – and now fears for her safety in Monroe.
“We are legal,” she says, fighting back tears. “We’re not terrorists. We’re not criminals. We were just following our American dream and it became a nightmare.”
“We’re going to sell this house and move, and I don’t think we’ll ever set foot in this town again.”